Hearts heavy, whites feeling driven from Africa
ABIDJAN, IVORY COAST — He sits alone in the softly lit room, leaning on mauve cushions and eating cashew nuts out of a glazed coconut shell. His wife and children left three weeks ago, spat on and slapped as they ran to catch the departing plane to Paris.
"We wanted to stay together," he says. "But they were afraid for their lives."
Born and raised in Africa, this middle-aged French professional, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says he always loved the Ivory Coast. He always felt safe here.
"We used to joke: We don't live in Africa; we live in the Ivory Coast," he says ruefully. There was rule of law here, he explains, a sound economy, and broad, modern roads - not to mention plenty of servants, good restaurants, a wild nightlife, and weekends at beach houses down the coast.
And then the whole thing got flipped on its head. Now alone and angry, he, like countless other whites in other African countries have done before him, wonder what the future holds for whites on the continent.
A failed coup last September here led to civil war, and pro-government masses turned against their French neighbors, blaming them for what they perceived as France's sympathy for the northern rebels.
His offices were attacked, his children's school was ransacked, his neighbor's home was looted, and the streets of Abidjan, once nicknamed the Paris of Africa, were filled with furious mobs screeching to whites, "Go home!"
But for many whites, here in Ivory Coast as elsewhere, Africa is home. There are 4.5 million white South Africans. Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Namibia all have white communities numbering in the tens of thousands, and thousands more are scattered among Angola, Zambia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Congo, Senegal, Gabon, and beyond. Many hold onto their British, Portuguese, German, French or Italian citizenships, but most have been on this continent all their lives.
Until five months ago, some 20,000 French nationals lived in Ivory Coast. Most were left over or descended from the French colonialists who ruled until independence in 1960. Six hundred French-owned companies were based in Ivory Coast. The telephone and electricity companies, as well as the ports of Abidjan and San Pedro and the lucrative cocoa, rubber, and timber trades are all dominated by French. There are French doctors, lawyers, teachers, and even politicians.
"It makes no sense," the Frenchman says. "We have only given to this country. We gave the Africans work and worked with them. It is not like Zimbabwe where the whites took all the land. Here we were accepted."
But were they ever, really?
"It was never as simple as they say," states Gerard N'Guessan, a wealthy Ivorian shop owner in Abidjan whose children attended one of the city's 10 French schools before they all were forced to shut last month. "It should come as no surprise that we have a love-hate relationship with the former colonialist, here as elsewhere in Africa. We speak their language and eat their pain chocolat.... But they were and will always be outsiders."
Today, almost all the whites have fled Ivory Coast, hastily leaving behind cars, homes, and jobs. Only around 3,000 remain. Some cannot afford to relocate, others are just packing slowly. Most find it hard to accept Mr. N'Guessan's words.
"But I am married to an Ivorian!" protests Mahmoud Khaled, a Frenchman of Moroccan descent, born in the Ivory Coast. Mr. Khaled manages the Patisserie Abidjanaise, a popular 24-hour cafe where whites and blacks used to mingle over morning croissants. Of the 20,000 French nationals that were here, some 8,000 were Africans with dual nationality, married to whites. "If we are not safe here among our own," argues Mr. Khaled, "we are not safe anywhere in Africa."
Robert Rotberg, director of Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass., warns against seeing the situation here - or even that in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe has waged a harsh campaign against white land owners - as a lesson in black-white relations in Africa. This sort of crisis, he argues, is not inevitable.
"Of course there is a role for whites in the new 21st-century Africa, just as there is for other non-Africans such as Indians, Chinese, or Lebanese," he says. "There will long be a role in developing nations for persons with expertise - technical, administrative, or commercial - to help Africans develop their polities and economies.... It is not a question of whether [whites] should have settled in Africa or not. They did. It behooves Africa to retain loyal foreigners who can help."
But, says the Frenchman, the government of President Laurent Gbagbo turns a blind eye to this logic. "We are hostages of his government," he argues. "Gbagbo encourages the people to attack us, which says to the French government: Don't push me too hard on a peace deal, because I have your nationals at my mercy."
Foreign diplomats here mostly agree that Mr. Gbagbo did little to stop the violence against the French. After weeks of silence, he pleaded for calm, and demonstrations against the French immediately ceased.
African art, collected lovingly over the years, adorns the hallways and hangs on all the walls in the house of the Frenchman. There are masks of the Yacouba tribe and ceramics bought from Korogo's famed potters. There are paintings - filled with deep blues and rust color - by Ivory Coast's most renowned artists, and ancient wall hangings from the markets of the south. His best piece, a small Lobi tribe statue from the northeast, rests on the mantelpiece, under a special lamp, encased by glass. All this will soon be shipped off to join the family in France. He will stay with the bare space, hoping against hope that the nightmare will soon end.
But when the movers come by with boxes and styrofoam padding, he sends them away. "I know I risk losing it all," he says. "But I adore the art of my country ... and my heart will break when it is gone."